An absolutely staggering amount of food is lost or wasted globally every year – about 1.3 billion metric tons, representing a third of the world’s food by weight and a quarter of it by calorie.
This loss and wastage leads to consequences for the environment, for your pocketbook, and for the hungry. And although this huge amount of waste suggests serious problems with the way our food is produced, transported, sold and consumed, it also means a lot can be done to save this food from the landfill.
Food loss vs. food waste
Generally, food loss refers to food that spoils or rots close to the farm. For example, a stockpile of corn might be eaten by pests, or a tomato could be squashed on its way to market. Food waste, on the other hand, occurs when someone makes a decision to throw away food that could have been eaten, like when a grocery store throws away unsold vegetables or when a household throws out a loaf of moldy bread.
Food loss tends to be a bigger problem in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where infrastructure isn’t as developed, but in countries like the United States, the real problem is food waste. Almost 70% of all the calories lost and wasted in the US are thrown away at the retailer, restaurant or consumer level, which reveals a serious problem in the way we approach food.
There are numerous reasons this happens. Sometimes, as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard University detail in a new report, it’s because of confusing date labels that lead people to throw away perfectly good food. Other times it’s because of portion sizes in restaurants being too large, or because an all-you-can-eat buffet encourages people to load up their plates with more food than can be eaten. A consumer might not be sure of the best way to store their fruit, leading to it spoiling faster than it would otherwise.
International movement underway
These represent just a few of the problems that add up to an astonishing amount of waste.
However, a real movement around reducing and recovering food loss and waste seems to be taking off. In the European Union, the European Parliament has called for food wastage to be cut in half.
Here at WRI, we’re working with international partners on a global food loss and waste protocol that will give guidance on how businesses and governments can measure the food loss and waste that happens in their own jurisdictions. In the US, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have launched a Food Waste Challenge to change the way we think about food waste in this country. And now the Capital Area Food Bank is working to reduce waste right here in DC.
The problem of food loss and waste is big and complicated, but with global demand for food continuing to rise, now is the right time to take action – at all levels, from global to local, and at all steps, from farm to fork.
Brian Lipinski is the lead author of Reducing Food Loss and Waste, a joint report from World Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme.